With “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (尚氣與十環傳奇) the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) finally brings 20 percent of the world population (the Chinese) into the spotlight. With a Chinese-born star, Simu Liu, and a Hawaiian-born Japanese hapa director, Destin Daniel Cretton, and a screenplay written by ABC David Elias Calaham (“The Expendables” and “Godzilla”), Cretton (“Just Mercy”) and Andrew Landham (“Just Mercy”), the film has a good solid diversity foundation to build on and a good defense against cultural appropriation claims. “Shang-Chi” might be an experiment, but the film is good solid fun, featuring the ubiquitous Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s gal pal and fight instructors and coordinators of Asian descent (Alan Tang, fight instructor; Andy Cheng, fight coordinator; and Lu Junchang, fight coordinator).
The film, “Shang-Chi,” is part of the MCU Phase Four. The original Shang-Chi (尚氣 Shàng qì) was the Master of Kung Fu and debuted in 1973, He was supposedly the son of Fu Manchu (when Marvel had the comic book rights to Sax Rohmer’s creation). Dr. Fu-Manchu (傅满洲 ) first appeared in 1913 (“The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu”). Sax Rohmer (1883-1959) was a product of his time, however, since 2009 Ohio-born US author William Patrick Maynard has been writing continuations of the Fu Manchu series under authorization by Rohmer’s estate (e.g. “The Destiny of Fu Manchu,” 2013).
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Wisely, the MCU has dumped Fu-Manchu and created Wenwu (文武 WénWǔ , meaning text and military or fierce ) to be Shang-Chi’s father. Played by Tony Leung, Wenwu meets and is beaten by a beautiful woman, Jian Li (Fala Chen), while seeking a mysterious village. Jian Li is from the village, but the two fall in love and Jian Li leaves the mysterious village of Ta Lo, never revealing its location to Wenwu. Wenwu, with the Ten Rings, had been an evil overlord who ruled much of the world, changing history and is centuries old, but for Jian Li, he gives up his role in the Ten Rings organization and puts the magical Ten Rings away. He teaches his son (Jayden Tianyi Zhang as the young Shang-Chi) martial arts while his daughter, Xialing (夏玲), teaches herself. Shang-Chi’s mother gives both Shang-Chi (尚氣) and Xialing (Harmonie He plays the young Xialing) matching jade pendants which she says will keep them connected to her. Jian Li, however, is murdered by Wenwu’s enemies and Wenwu vows to take revenge, training Shang-Chi to become an assassin.
Before he leaves on his first assassination assignment, Shang-Chi promises his sister he’ll return in three days. Instead, Shang-Chi ends up living in San Francisco over a decade later. There, both Shang-Chi and Katy are 30-somethings who seem to be running away from adulthood. They work as hotel valets even though Shang-Chi speaks four languages and Katy graduated from Berkeley with honors. They’re the kind of valets who go for joy rides in client’s cars, but in their own lives, they are carefree and car-less. They take the bus to work, but on one particular day, they are followed by assassins led by Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu). The fight is videotaped and goes viral, but Razor Fist snatches the pendant. Thinking his sister might be in danger and having received a postcard with an illustration of a white origami dragon on it (which references their mother) from her, Shang-Chi goes to Macau with Katy for support.
The viral video has provided Shang-Chi with a new name: Bus Boy. Once in Macau, Shang-Chi goes to the address on the postcard, but finds himself watching a battle between Abomination (Tim Roth) whom we met in the 2008 film “The Incredible Hulk” and Wong (Benedict Wong) from “Doctor Strange.” Shang-Chi ends up battling his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang) who has a lot of pent up anger. However, she didn’t send the postcard. And someone comes for her pendant. Eventually, this leads to a family reunion that is fraught with more conflict: Think controlling male chauvinistic dad meets underachieving son and overachieving daughter. Instead of leading to an awkward holiday dinner, they’ll fight to do the right thing, but not necessarily agree on what it is.
Like “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is about family. “Black Widow” is like the MCU worst family vacation scenario for superheroes, while “Shang-Chi” is a family reunion and a long-lost relative revelation. Unlike “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi” chooses not to make any of the humans involved truly villainous. The true evil here is animal although they have some fluffy and silly, graceful and awesome magical creatures as well. It’s all a matter of balance. Liu and Awkwafina have great chemistry as friends who’d rather find the fun in life than deal with the daily pressures of the rat race. The fake Mandarin, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) also appears and provides a lot of the lighthearted humor. As director, Cretton keeps the action scenes tight and uncluttered with a dash of comedy and the timing is spot on. For planning the fight scenes, the film included people of Asian descent: Alan Tang, fight instructor; Andy Cheng, fight coordinator; and Lu Junchang, fight coordinator.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a film about family told with a lot of humor and a lot of Asian faces to fill out the diversity in the MCU. Still, the missteps of Phase Three haven’t quite been forgotten. “Shang-Chi” is a step in the right direction, but we’ll have to see how Phase Four plays out to see if the MCU is really embracing diversity in a way that includes people of Asian descent. The film’s final scene was a clever bookending as well as a suggestion of further adventures, but as with all films of the MCU, there is a mid-credits scene and a post credits scene. Be sure to stay for both.
For a review of the phases, see below.
Phase One Diversity Score
The MCU Phase One began with the 2008 “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” That was continued with “Iron Man 2” in 2010. In 2011 “Thor” introduced Loki and Thor and “Captain America: The First Avenger” brought in Steve Roger, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes and Howard Stark. “Marvel’s The Avengers” was helmed by the now disgraced director Joss Whedon and brought Iron Man/Tony Stark, Steve Rogers/Captain America, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Thor, Loki, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Clinton Barton/Hawkeye and Nick Fury.
On the Asian front, “Iron Man” had Iranian-American Shaun Toub as Ho Yinsen, the engineer who helps save Tony Stark’s life. Ho Yinsen was supposedly from Timbetpal, a country in Asia which became part of the People’s Republic of China. Does anyone think West Asians can easily pass for East Asians? Timbetpal seems to be a portmanteau for Tibet and Nepal. Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir appears as Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings.
“Iron Man” also starred Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes and that should be a reminder that actors can be replaced in the MCU. Don Cheadle played “Rhodey” in “Iron Man 2.”
“The Incredible Hulk” is further reminder that people can be replaced. Edward Norton played Bruce Banner. Banner somehow ends up in Rio de Janeiro and yet no Latinos are featured in major roles. To control his temper, Banner uses yoga and yet no Asian Indians get featured. Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo by the 2012 “The Avengers.”
“Iron Man 2” introduces a new Rhodey (Cheadle) and introduces Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). British-Iranian Christiane Amanpour appears as herself.
“Thor” had Israeli-born American actress Natalie Portman as Thor’s love interest, Jane Foster. British actor Idris Elba played Heimdall. Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano played Hogun, one of the Warriors Three. Hogun the Grim returns in “Thor: The Dark World” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Honduran American actor Maximiliano Hernández plays Agent Jasper Sitwell.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” does introduce Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi) as one of the Howling Commandos. Derek Luke is a member of the commandos as Gabe Jones. Hernández returns as Sitwell.
Phase Two Diversity Score
The 2013 “Iron Man 3” introduces The Mandarin who turns out to be British actor Guy Pearce. The Mandarin hires a British actor, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), to play the Mandarin on TV. The terrorist organization of the Ten Rings is introduced. According to director Shane Black on the Mandarin, “We’re not saying he’s Chinese, we’re saying he, in fact, draws a cloak around him of Chinese symbols and dragons because it represents his obsessions with Sun Tzu in various ancient arts of warfare that he studied.”
Miguel Ferrer plays Vice President Rodriguez. Wang Xueqi briefly plays Dr. Wu (who operates on Tony Stark) and, for the Chinese release, Fan Bingbing appears as one of his assistants.
In the 2013 “Thor: The Dark World,” besides Elba as Heimdall, Portman as Foster and Asano as Hogun, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje appears as Algrim / Kurse. Zachary Levi replaces Joshua Dallas as Fandral. Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro, who plays the Collector, appears in a mid-credits scene.
In the 2014 “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Anthony Mackie appears as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Hernández returns as Stilwell. Singaporean actor Chin Han appears as a member of the World Security Council. Hapa Asian Indian comedian Danny Pudi appears as a technician.
Also in 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy” has Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Filipino hapa Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, Djimon Hounsou as Korath, and Benicio del Toro as Taneleer Tivan / The Collector.
The 2015 “Ant-Man,” had part Cuban Bobby Cannavale as SFPD officer Jim Paxton, Mexican-American Michael Peña as Lang’s former cellmate and current crew member Luis, Tip TI Harris as crew member Dave, Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, part Armenian David Dastmalchian as crew member Kurt, hapa (Japanese, Hawaiian, Filipino, etc.) as a writer.
Filming took place in San Francisco and metro Atlanta. San Francisco’s demographics are 35 percent Asian and 15 percent Latino/Hispanic (2010 US Census).
Phase Three Diversity Score
This is the phase where cultural appropriation became too obvious. Before, it was the incorporation of Asian martial arts within the choreography that was problematic. The second film introduced in Phase Three was “Doctor Strange.”
The 2016 “Captain America: Civil War” includes Cheadle as Rhodey and introduces Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. Alfre Woodard, John Kani and Florence Kasuma appear.
The 2016 “Doctor Strange” follows the same basic formula of the 2017 Netflix TV series “Iron Fist.” Rich White guy goes to East Asia and learns its secrets and comes back to be a leader of both people of Asian descent and White people.
The film begin in Nepal (Kathmandu) with the sorcerer Kaecilius and his followers stealing something from the Ancient One. Then we go to New York City the arrogant neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange has an accident. NYC is 14 percent Asian, 29 percent Latino/Hispanic and 24 percent Black/African American. It is only 42.7 percent White alone and 32 percent White alone and not Hispanic or Latino. What do you think the demographics of Nepal or Kathmandu are?
Nigerian British Chiwetel Ejiofor is Karl Mordo which, in essence changed the character from White to Black just as the case of Nick Fury. The Ancient One is changed from East Asian male to Celtic White woman (Tilda Swinton). Supervillain Kaecilius is also White, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. That’s a lot of Whiteness coming out of Nepal.
Latino and part Native American Benjamin Bratt plays a paraplegic who learns from the Ancient One how to heal himself. Linda Louise Duan, a Chinese British actress, plays Tina Minoru.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” had Bautista as Drax, Korean hapa Pom Klementieff as Mantis and Ving Rhames as Charlie-27, and Michelle Yeoh as Aleta Ogord.
The 2017 “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” had Zendaya as Michelle, Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, Filipino American Jacob Batalon as Peter Parker’s best friend Ned, Laura Harrier as Liz, Guatemalan American Tony Revolori as Eugene “Flash” Thompson (original character White), Bokeem Woodbine and Herman Schultz/Shocker, Garcelle Beauvais as Doris Toomes, Dominican American Hemky Madera as the bodega owner, Mexican Canadian Michael Mando as Mac and Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita’s descent who is the principal at Peter Parker’s high school.
The 2017 “Thor: Ragnarok” features Elba as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as Scrapper 142/Valkyrie, New Zealander Karl Urban as Kurge, Asano as Hogun, and Taika Waititi is both the director and Korg.
The 2018 “Black Panther, had a predominately Black cast, but also took a brief and unnecessary trip to South Korea without featuring any actors of East Asian descent. This was a second stumble for Phase Three.
The 2018 “Avengers: Infinity War” Has Benedict Wong as Wong, Klementieff as Mantis, Bautista as Drax, Saldana as Gamora, Vin diesel as Groot, and many cast members from “Black Panther.”
The 2018 “Ant-Man and the Wasp” filmed in San Francisco and Hawaii as well as Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. Peña returns as Luis, Cannavale as Paxton, Harris as Dave, Dastmalchian as Kurt. The film introduces, Hannah John-Kamen as Ava Star, Randall Park as Jimmy Woo and Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster.
The 2019 “Captain Marvel” had Jackson as Fury, Djimon Hounsou as Korath, Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau, Chinese Brit Gemma Chan as Minn-Erva and Dominican actor Algenis Pérez Soto as Att-Lass.
In the 2019 “Avengers: Endgame,” Hiroyuki Sana’a plays Akihiko, a Yakuza boss. Ken Jeong plays a storage facility guard and Yvette Nicole Brown, a S.H.I.E.L.D. employee (cameos).
In 2019, “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” J. B. Smoove appears as Julius Dell. Jacob Batalon returns as Ned Leeds and Zendaya as MJ.
According to Statista, Asia (including the Middle East) is about 59.33 percent of the world population in 2020. Africa (including North Africa) is only 17.51 percent. Europe is 9.77 percent. North America is 4.73 percent. Latin America and the Carribean is 8.37 percent. Oceana is 0.56 percent. China as a nation represents 18.46 percent of the total world population. At number 2, is India. By population, four Asian nations (China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) are in the top five. The USA is number three. The African nations with the highest population is Nigeria which is number 7. In the top ten are, in order, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Two Latin American countries are in the top ten: Brazil (6) and Mexico (10). Of the so-called Western nations, the USA is number 3 and Russia (which is partially in Asia) is number nine.
There is an over-representation of White people, specifically people from the US and Europe and likely people who would be considered Black, but not necessarily Asian. There is an underrepresentation of Asians and Chinese.
Phase Four beings with “Black Widow” and the only addition here is possibly O-T Fagbenle as Rick Mason and Liani Samuel, Michelle Lee, and Nanna Blondell as Red Room assassins Lerato, Oksana, and Ingrid, respectively.